The First Precept

On a Saturday morning Aikido class a few years ago, Sensei brought in the book by Gichin Funakoshi, “The Twenty Guiding Principles of Karate”.  He read us the first precept in full:

“karate-do begins and ends with rei”

“Along with judo and kendo, karate-do is a representative Japanese martial art.  And with it’s fellow martial arts, karate-do should begin as it should end-with rei.”

“Rei is often defined as “respect,” but it actually means much more.  Rei encompasses both an attitude of respect or others and a sens of self-esteem.  When those who honor themselves, transfer that feeling of esteem-that is, respect to others, their action is nothing less than an expression of rei.”

“It is said that ‘without rei there is disorder,’ and also that ‘the difference between men and animals lies in rei’  Combat methods that lack rei are not martial arts but merely contemptible violence.  Physical power without rei is no more than brute strength, and for human beings it is without value.”

“It should also be noted that although a person’s deportment may be correct, without a sincere and reverent heart they do not possess true rei.  True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

“All martial arts begin and end with rei.  Unless they  are practiced with a feeling of reverence and respect, they are simply forms of violence.  For this reason martial arts must maintain rei from beginning to end.”

These words are both beautiful and eloquent.  I read this and re-read this now with my Shodan test less than a month away.

A friend recently asked me how my preparation was going.  I answered with:

There are a few things I need to brush up on technically, but my main preparation is more about what I want to present back to Sensei and our dojo. For my last test i emphasized consistency with each technique and connection with my partner. I’ve been thinking about what Aikido means to me and the things I have to work on off the mat: not digging my heels in, giving, and rather than escalating an issue, softening one.

So, how do I express this on the mat in test format? How do I greet a strike or a grab with softness? How do I protect my partner as I protect myself? I think that answering these questions will be what I try to express for my test.

I think that these are good goals, but if I were to boil it down, there is one sentence in the first precept that really speaks to me, “True rei is the outward expression of a respectful heart.”

So, more than anything, past technique, past competence, past expression, my goal for my test is to outwardly express my respectful heart.  That’s a truly high goal to shoot for and it means many things.  But it’s something that I can focus on and answer with a simple yes or no.  “Do my actions express my respect of others and respect to myself?”

So, with that, “rei”.

Life doesn’t Happen in Hanmi

The shomen at Centerfield Aikido

On Sunday, June 6th I had the amazing pleasure of training at Centerfield Aikido in Occidental California with Mary McLean Sensei. The dojo is a tent structure surrounded by the wooded hillside and at certain times of the day, the trees silhouette the ceiling and sides of the walls. Birds flying overhead provide moving silhouettes as they come over the ceiling. There is a magnificent shomen built by one of her students and lends graciousness and beauty to an already magical environment.

We trained and worked on yokomenuchi koto gaishi. First we we worked on the strike, then the throw, practicing getting off the line first and connecting with our partner and finally executing the technique. There were quite a few things I really enjoyed about her aspect of training:

As uke (the attacker), she suggested that while it’s ok to give your partner something to work with, try to stay balanced so that I can receive anything my partner can choose to do and be ok with it. This means that although I’m giving forward intention, if my partner chooses to do another technique that brings me in a different direction, then I can go there equally as prepared as if he were to do the called upon technique.

She likened this to a conversation. Both as uke and as nage, if we get too enmeshed with the wrist or the throw itself, it’s like opening up a conversation with someone with the only interest of proving your point. When we get too entangled, we don’t listen to our partners and we cannot have a clear conversation. We don’t hear the arguments because we are too embroiled in our own direction to go any other way.

All of this was great. However, I really enjoyed a quote she mentioned from one of her teachers, Terry Dobson, who said “Life doesn’t happen in Hanmi.” Hanmi is a stance used in Aikido and other martial arts. In the most literal translation, if we are about to be mugged or physically harassed in a street situation, we cannot ask our attacker to wait so that we can find our center and get into a defensive stance. By that time we are wounded, robbed or worse.

More often than not, we do not have that opportune moment to prepary ourselves to hear a hard conversation, to get accused, unjustly reprimanded, or be told something unexpected. Hopefully our training helps us be ready for life to come at us in any direction and allows us to find that balance so that we can go with it and act, rather than react, crumple or simply fall.

Uke, Nage, and the “what if” factor

In Aikido, our practice is primarily done with a partner. In a typical Aikido class, the teacher will demonstrate a technique, call out the attack and the students will pair up. “Uke” plays the role of the attacker. “Nage” plays the role of the person responding to the attack. Usually, uke will attack times and then the partners will switch roles.

A typical question that comes up when we practice this way is “What if?” As in, “What if instead of coming in with a straight punch, I fake with the left and come in with the right.” or “What if the person is stronger/shorter/taller/better/more fragile than you?” When we practice, uke’s job is to give a good solid attack. That means that if we are instructed to throw a mune tsuki (a straight punch to the solar plexus area), then we follow through. We don’t stop half way and change the attack as nage starts the technique. This allows nage to receive the attack fully and then perform the technique prescribed by the teacher as a response to this attack.
Aikido has been criticized by some for this approach. Some say that this does not present a realistic situation. I reserve my comments on the realism or lack thereof and would like to discuss another aspect that I feel is important aspect of practicing on the mat, but an even more important aspect of living our lives. That’s trust.
In Aikido, we have to trust that our partners are going to do what we expect them to. If we do not trust that they will follow through on their attack, then we will not build up the confidence to respond in kind. There are many carry overs in life off the mat (aka the real world) where this is true. We have to trust that we can depend on our partners to be honest and trust worthy. We have to trust that our partners can and will come to us in our time of need, and ask us for help when they need help. We need to trust that our partners love us and support us as we love them. When we do this, it gives us the confidence to open our hearts and live our lives to the fullest.
It is human nature to ask “what if”. In the myriad of experiences we have in our lives, there are an endless combinations of this question. As we see that our partners do what we trust them to do though, we allow ourselves to still the voice in our heads that ask, “what if?” and as we trust and show our partners worthy of trust, love happens, miraculously, beautifully and unending.

Dire Straights – How Aikido Saved Jean Maggrett’s Life

Although Jean Maggrett does not practice Aikido anymore, she frequently sits on our testing boards. At 81, Jean has practiced Aikido for 30 years. She is a student of Bob Nadeau, and a contemporary of my Sensei, Bob Noha. I have had the wonderful benefit of her perspective and guidance on both my second and first kyu tests. She is enthusiastic and encouraging to all who practice our art and is an advocate for the benefits that Aikido can bring you off the mat.

The story presented in this post is Jean’s, published with permission from her on my blog. I am honored to be able to share this touching and poignant story.

Dire Straights – Jean Maggrett

From the time we were born, my brother Bill and I spent our summer holidays at a cottage built by our grandparents in Northern Michigan, near the top of the mitt where the great lakes of Huron and Michigan connect. Day-long beach picnics by Lake Michigan were a family ritual for four generations. We’d swim in the fresh, cold water, then gather around a bon-fire of driftwood to cook weiners and marshmallows while we watched the “million dollar” sunset over the water.

One summer when my brother was fifty-two, he suggested that we hike out the Waugoshance Peninsula which extends out into Lake Michigan, separating the straits of Mackinac from Cecil Bay. Appropriately, the area is called Wilderness State Park. There are few roads , no buildings or modern improvements, only a small parking lot at the end of a long gravel road.

With us on our expedition that day were Bill’s eighteen year-old son Carl and Link, an old fraternity friend from college. My brother told us that he had flown over the straits and state park in a small plane and then dreamed of walking out to the point someday.

It was a beautiful summer Sunday in early August. Skies were blue, the water calm and clear, gently lapping the shore. On the bottom, brightly colored boulders seemed within easy reach but were deeper than they appeared.

We started hiking along the shore. It was a familiar environment though we’d never been at that particular beach. Sand pipers darted and tottered ahead of us at the edge of the water. A few sea gulls sailed above. The dry sand made a vibration noise as we trudged toward Waugoshance point. To the North, we gazed at the straits, to the South, Cecil Bay. The beach above North, we gazed at the straits, to the south, Cecil Bay. The beach above high water supported grasses and shrubs.

Eventually we discovered the peninsula was cut by a small, shallow inlet. It was fun to wade across. Soon after, we came to another similar inlet, wider and deeper then the first, but still easy to cross. At the next one, which was much wider than the first two, we gazed in dismay at the distance. We agreed to stop for a break, a snack and some discussion.

While sharing cheese, crackers, peanut butter and apples, Bill talked about how the land looked from the air. He assured us he remembered where there was a sand bar that he was certain we could find. He removed his long pants and I remarked about how his brightly patterned swim trunks that seemed to reveal a secret side to his ordinarily conventional engineer’s exterior.

As we headed out into the water, the youngest of us plunged ahead, electing to swim the entire distance. The cold water quickly became deeper and I began to feel reluctant. When it reached my chest, I felt movement around my feet, then calves, rising to my hips.

At once, I yelled to the others that i was turning back. As I was bringing my legs up to the surface, I shot a quick glance around toward the shore and at Bill. He was shouting and fighting the water. His words were garbled but I made out the last one.


I felt panic close off my breath. Then suddenly, my Sensei (Aikido teacher) Bob Nadeau’s teaching came to me as a transforming tide of ease: “Be okay with yourself, breath and flow.” The panic was gone and I heard my inner voice say, ” can be all right here for as long as is necessary,” and I stretched out flat as a lily pad above the hungry undercurrent.

From that position, I wasn’t able to look around or kick my feet. Only my hands moved me back toward the shore. I just gazed at the blue above, breathing and acknowledging for myself that I was okay.

After a while, I wanted to test the depth: If I had headed in the right direction, I should be near shore by now, I thought. Venturing to touch bottom, I dropped a leg down. Immediately, I felt the undertow sucking me down and the adrenaline rising in my throat. I retracted my leg and vowed to make no more tests but remain a lily pad until I brushed the shore. Moments later, I did touch land and stood up, looking out over the water. I could see Link twenty-five yards out and Carl a bit further.

Raising my arms above my head, I felt like a lighthouse signalling sailors in distress. I knew my brother drowned. Then I thought, no, he was swimming under water, and would surface any minute now. Then I realized the real truth was that Bill never came along with us on this hike.

Then in my mind’s eye, I got a vivid picture of Bill emerging from the kitchen door of the cottage saying, “Hi! How was your hike?” Next came the thought that I had somehow got in the wrong location because the words were: I’m from California. I don’t belong here and I must be leaving right away!”

Soon the other two survivors came out of the water. Carl’s words cut my fantasies when he asked, “Where’s Willie?” I said, “I’m afraid we’ve lost him.”

Link described how he was near Bill when he hollered for help. He said he couldn’t do more than advise him to take it easy and float on top of the water. Bill’s panic paralyzed him, he sank and he was swept out with the current.

Link went back to the car to go for help. Carl and I stood on the beach and cried. Some other people appeared, walking nearby, unaware of the drowning.

Wouldn’t they die if they knew what just happened?” Carl said. We walked in shock back to the parking lot. A medical emergency vehicle arrived and the driver gave us hope by saying frog men were about to fly in on a helicopter. When he was brought back up it might be possible to revive him due to the preservative quality of the cold water.

Four hours later my brother’s body was found and flown to St. Ignace Hospital. We rushed there by car. A Doctor greeted us with the news that Bill could not be revived. His body had been moved to a funeral parlor across the road. We were to go identify the body.

There in a small room off the main office lay my brother looking very purple. His eyes seemed to have X’s in them, like the dead birds in cartoons. He certainly was gone.

We drove home in silent dread. Upon our arrival back at the cottage, we would be calling Bill’s wife Diane and our mother. I asked my aunt to make the call. The more people I told, the heavier I felt, until I finally just sank into sleep.

Shomen uchi

In Aikido, a basic sword strike is called Shomen uchi. It is performed by raising the sword directly up above the head, and then striking down directly in front of you. There are many other arts that have a similar strike, kendo being one of them.

Our Sensei relays a story about a friend of his going to a seminar where visiting 9th dan kendo master was teaching. His friend was eager to find out what secret techniques he could glean and snuck in early to watch the kendo teacher warm up before the seminar started. He was surprised to see the teacher warming up by performing Shomen Uchi over and over again.

It’s important to remember the basics and keep them in our practice always. Some of the basics in life:

  • I love you
  • I’m sorry
  • You can depend on me
  • I need help
  • Thank you
  • You’re welcome

He ended class today with a zen quote that I really liked:
At first, I saw mountains as mountains and rivers as rivers. Then, I saw mountains were not mountains and rivers were not rivers. Finally, I see mountains again as mountains, and rivers again as rivers.

Everything comes back to our own versions of Shomen Uchi.

The Inevitability of Gravity

One of the things I love about the Aikido dojo I attend is how Sensei relates certain themes and weaves them into several different classes. Lately he’s been working with a theme he calls “dimensionality”. The process is as follows:

We do a technique to establish a baseline. After we perform the techniques a few times with our partners, we start to process the following:

Lineage – what is the lineage of this technique? Lineage has some deep connotation in martial arts, so to clarify, it’s simply “what do we do to prepare for this particular technique?” We could ask the same question, “what is the lineage of preparing for a meeting?” In essence, Sensei simply asks, how do we think of and prepare for this technique. How do we think differently about this technique than another.

Energies – Sensei will then ask us to think about the energies that we invoke to perform the technique. Do we feel earth, spiral, center? Can we relate it more to circular, triangular, square? Can we feel fire, water, or the energy of the void as we perform the technique.

Space – What is the space that we build in order to perform the technique. What does it feel like? Is it big, small, thick, airy?

The “I” – Because we do not practice Aikido in a vacuum, and these bags of bones and organs and blood have a spirit that provides guidance to the physical, what does adding the presence of what Sensei calls the “I”, our unique physical experience as individuals, bring to the lineage and energies of the technique we are performing.

Innate Knowledge – As we go through this technique, what do we know about it that transcends words? How do we move from a perspective of innate understanding of a technique that we’ve worked time and time on the mat?

Citizenship – What is the sense of citizenship and ownership that we have as we have our partners inhabit the space we have created? Does it encompass and engage our partner? Is it inclusive? Is it exclusionary? Is it playful? Violent? Aggressive?

Saturday morning, he gave us a framework to work in, in this process. He asked us to view this from the perspective of earth energy. I had some interesting revelations going through this process. Earth energy for me begat gravity. I started to think of the inevitability of gravity. I started thinking of how, because of gravity and the limitations it brings, I will not fly, I’m weighted down, I’m burdened by this physical fact and cannot escape it.

As we processed and went through the class, my perspective changed to that of framework: rather than gravity being the inevitable, I started thinking not in terms of burden or limitation, but rather framework. Given the physical fact that there is gravity and gravity affects my existence in a very real way, how can I move through and what are the qualities of gravity that I can use, learn from, and grow with.

Finally, gravity simply just “is”. It lost the forboding connotation of the inevitable, and lost the academic or opportunisting connotation of framework. It is a fact of life. It is all around and something to accept. I can feel limited by it, I can learn from it, but until I accept something that simply is, I will not benefit and grow.

The reason I’m talking about this has not a lot to do with Aikido, but rather some things that are going on in my life right now. There are somethings that I need to accept as fact. I can fear it, I can learn from it, but until I simply accept, I won’t grow. In order for me to live my life to the fullest, I need growth in my life. Growth comes sometimes through painful realization, and is not always guaranteed. I wish that growth was inevitable, like gravity, but I am ok with the process as it stands…and I’m up to the task of growing my spirit and caring for my soul.

Road to 1st kyu is complete

Originally uploaded by markdeso

And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing.
– 1 Corinthians 13:3

For the past 10 weeks our dojo has been helping two of us prepare for our belt tests. Linda tested for 3rd kyu and I tested for 1st. I decided to blog about my experience, more from a perspective of what kind of insight this experience gives me.

There were 3 things I wanted to accomplish:
consistency, gentleness and good technique. I think with out the first and the second, the third does me no good. I need to be consistent and I need to be gentle in my approach and manner in all that I do. After the test the testing board brings us out to talk about our test. I was very pleased when Sensei specifically remarked about my consistency throughout the test.

I had been training with a san dan at our dojo who agreed to be my uke. At literally the last moment, (we were in the middle of rolls warming up for our test) he said to me that his back was bothering him to the point where he could not be my uke. My uke has talked about doing the best with what’s given you. This was an opportunity to do just that.

We are a small school so to replace him, I went through most of my dojo mates that came that day to watch. My son Steven even uke’d for me on a few techniques. As we reviewed my test, Sensei remarked that I showed good flow regardless of who I worked with, and adjusted my techniques to be appropriate to the uke’s experience. I was very touched by his support and words. The board all had good things to say and I felt good about my performance.

I have posted my test on youtube. i’m wondering if I will have an onslaught of “that stuff just won’t do against MMA.” comments. Here’s what I think about that: There were two peopl on our testing board that are up in their years. We have a woman who is 82. She does not train anymore but Sensei thinks enough of her to have her sit on our tests anytime she can. She is a testament to consistent training. We also have one of our black belts that still trains. He is 79, and still rolling around on the mat and throwing us with ease. I’m fairly certain that neither of these two fine people have had a fight in their life. However, when we see football players, wrestlers, and boxers who cannot train because of bad knees, hips or other casualties of their sport, we have people well into their 60s, 70s and 80s still training and still vibrant. This is of great inspiration to me.

If you teach someone to fight, then that’s all they will do. However, if you teach someone to resolve conflict, become a bigger person, show love in the face of adversity, then you teach someone to tap into the greatness we all have.

I am grateful to my Sensei, my school and uke for their gracious support. I’m grateful to my son for his wondrous and unflinching support of his dad. Last but not least, I’m grateful for having a wonderful and amazing woman that has been there for me, cheering me on, inspiring me and loving me through this experience. Leah, you are my sun, moon and stars.